Confusing coffins.

Tine Van Osselaer

Let’s talk coffins. Or, to put it more precisely, let’s talk about a coffin that was deemed important enough to be displayed decades after it had held the remains that it was originally designed for. The coffin of Margaret Wake (1617-1678) is just such a specimen. Kept in a glass case at the Van Celst Institute in Antwerp (that’s right, only a stone’s throw from our offices in Antwerp), it has survived years of turmoil and destruction. A material testimony of the veneration of the Carmelite nun Mary Margaret of the Angels, the coffin has had quite a turbulent history.

The coffin of Margaret Wake at the Van Celst Institute (photograph by the author)

Why would one keep a coffin (without a body)? Aren’t the remains enough? Before I start answering these questions and exploring our coffin’s journey, let me first introduce the person it was made for. Margaret Wake (1617-1678) was thedaughter of Lyonel Wake and Mary Thorny (who had both converted to the Catholic faith). In 1633 she entered the English Carmel in Antwerp where she became ‘Mary Margaret of the Angels’ and was elected prioress in 1665 and in 1677. She was not an official saint, but was perceived as a ‘saintly nun’ (during her lifetime and after her death).[1]

Margaret Wake became the center of attention when almost 40 years after her death, her body was found to be incorrupt on 13 August, 1716. The story of its discovery has been well studied by Nicky Hallet (see The senses in religious communities, 1600-1800, 2013; Lives of spirit: English Carmelite self-writing of the early modern period,2007). The remains were put on display and became the object of veneration. The Carmelite nuns actively engaged in promoting the exceptional body. They asked Peter Balthazar Boutatts (1666-1755), the famous Antwerp engraver, to create a devotional card and in the days after the discovery, two Carmelite nuns were assigned the task of touching the body with the medals and pictures that the faithful provided. The efforts paid off and some miraculous cures were attributed to Margare Wake. Two years later, her remains were put in a new coffin, but it was still possible to see the body if one obtained special permission from the bishop.[2]  

Devotional card with the incorrupt body of Mary Margaret of the Angels (Margaret Wake). (© Archives of the Archdiocese of Malines)

While there is much to be written about the afterlife of the remains, in the following I want to focus on Wake’s coffin and the somewhat later period, namely the years after the English Carmelite nuns left for England at the end of the 18th century.Bypaying attention to this material aspect of the story, I hope to be doing justice to the many witnesses who carefully documented the whereabouts of the coffin and made sure to preserve and display it. Before we dive in, I need to warn you. Margaret Wake had several coffins and I am not completely sure which one is kept at the Van Celst institute. The first one, the one she was buried in, was replaced two years after her incorrupt body had been discovered, and the final one (a smaller one of 80 centimeters) was ordered in 1843 at the request of cardinal Sterckx.[3] As the coffin is definitely longer than 80 centimeters, we are either dealing with coffin number one (1678-1718) or coffin number two (1718-1843) and I have conflicting sources. Why would this be easy if we can throw several coffins in the mix?

So what happened? We know that on 29 June, 1794 (before the second French invasion): “In the morning the English Theresians left Hopland for England….- and, as the Kronijk van Antwerpen adds – These nuns had as a precaution moved this body elsewhere, and so it is said, put it in the cathedral in the bishops’ vault…” [4] The people involved in this operation (who commented on this in 1800) testified that before the body was put in the bishops’ vault, the coffin was opened once more and “The body lay completely undamaged, what was supernatural since the many years that Margater Wake had been dead”[5]. In 1794, that same year, one of these eye witnesses was forced by representatives of the new government to open the coffin again and also this time found “a dead body of a woman, dressed in religious robes of the Theresians… complete and undamaged, with a colour that was supernatural for a dead person” [6] The eyewitness account of 1800 seems to suggest that the body remained in the bishops’ vault from 1794 to 1800 (when the witnesses returned to the cellar they found the body soiled and they had the coffin closed with a rope).

It is interesting to note that another story circulated as well, namely that Simon-Pierre Dargonne, commissioner of the “directoire exécutif de la municipalité”, was said to have transported the remains to the town hall. “… and in Antwerp people said that he had taken the two rings that the corpse was wearing[7] It is unclear if there is some truth to this story. Why would the coffin have to be transported to the town hall when the coffin was already open? But it is telling that Margaret Wake’s remains became the subject of gossip about the diabolical behavior of this new government – a body like hers needed to be treated with respect.


Unknown (engraver), The cathedral of Antwerp, PK.OP.10923, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Museum Plantin-Moretus (CC0 1.0)

So is this our coffin at the Van Celst Institute? The curate of Saint George’s Church in Antwerp, Jespers, appears to have believed that it was indeed this (second) coffin (which was replaced in 1843) that ended up in the institute.[8] I am not sure. I am tempted to believe this was the original coffin – of 1678 – in which Margaret Wake was initially buried. A few arguments in favour of this position. According to the Chronicle of the Van Celst institute – where the coffin is now kept – it was the coffin “wherein the venerable Margaret of the angels, English Carmelite had lain for 38 years and had remained uncorrupted” [9]. Why did the Carmelite nuns keep that coffin and why did the new owners likewise cherish this material remnant? The care for its preservation was probably related to the miraculous cures that had been linked to it. Since it had been in close contact with the body of an alleged saint, it functioned as relic, and therefore had thaumaturgical powers: e.g. the faithful could be cured by drinking its dust mixed with wine.

So if this is indeed our coffin, how did it end up in the Van Celst Institute? I have found two slightly different accounts: the first one, the notes of Sophie Van Celst (1875), daughter of the founder of the institute, remembered its history as follows. In 1794, when the nuns travelled to England, they left the coffin with the Basteyns family (a member of that family belonged to their order). After the family sold their house, the pharmacist Van Goor kept the coffin. It seems to have been a good place to shelter, for he noted: “I lay in it during the bombardment of the city and was preserved from the Dutch bullets and cannonballs that crossed my house”[10] When he left Antwerp, on 5 March 1834 he gave it to Sophie Van Celst. “For fear of the government”, they transported it to the Van Celst Institute at 10 p.m., disguised in a pushcart. At the institute, the coffin received a solemn reception “and we received it in procession praying the litanies of the Holy Trinity.”[11] The effect could be felt almost immediately. Shortly after the arrival of the coffin, the hand of a sister was healed by putting a small piece of wood from the coffin on the wound. Interestingly, the chronicle of the congregation gives a different order of the owners: after the death of Goor the coffin was given to Mr Bastyns “who went to live outside Flanders and gave us this treasure to preserve.”[12] Still the main date remains the same in both versions of the story: the coffin entered the institute in 1834.

Whether it is coffin number one or number two, when you read the sources, a few things stand out. First of all, this was no ordinary coffin, it was a relic (it had thaumaturgical powers and could protect you from bullets). Secondly, owning it held blessings and dangers (as it had to hidden from the government at times). Finally, while the devotion might have been forgotten in Antwerp and you need to lobby your way in to see the coffin at the Van Celst Institute, it is an exceptional testimony of what once was. We might need a little help to decipher its meaning ad history, but it is clear that this coffin was not only meant for the dead.

Bibliography

English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800, part 2, vol. 4 (Life Writing II), edited by Katrien Daemen-de Gelder, London & New York: Routledge, 2013 (contains the ‘Short Colections of beginnings of our English monastery of Teresians in Antwerp with some few perticulars of our dear deceased religious’).

Hallett, Nicky, The senses in religious communities, 1600-1800, Burlington: Ashgate, 2013 (esp. pp.107-110).

Hallett, Nicky, Lives of spirit: English Carmelite Self-Writing of the Early Modern Period, Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.


[1] On Margaret Wake, see: Gerard Simons, “Zuster Margaret Wake, Karmelietes”, Antwerpen. Tijdschrift der Stad Antwerpen, 23.4 (1977), pp.219-222; Prims, Floris, Antwerpsche heiligen, De Nederlandsche Boekhandel, 1943, Antwerpen, pp.106-114; Hardman (Sister Anna), Two English Carmelites: Mother Mary Xaveria Burton (1668-1714) and Mother Margaret Wake (1617-1678), 1939; Rita Hostie, Une Carmélite anglaise à Anvers: Margaret Wake (1942); “Who were the nuns?” (https://wwtn.history.qmul.ac.uk, consulted 14 September 2022).

[2] Daemen-De Gelder, 2013, pp.142-143, see also p. XXII; Hallett, 2007, p.59, p.169. Prims mentions two keys: one kept at the cloister and one at the diocese. Prims, 1943, p.113.

[3] By cardinal Sterckx, archbishop of Malines in 1843. Simons, 1977, p.221.

[4] “smorgens sijn de engelsche Theresen uijt het Hopland naer Engeland vertrokken …Deze Nonnekens hadden seg ik dit lichaem bij voorsorg elders versplaetst, en soo men segt in de cathedrale in den kelder der Bisschoppen gestelt…” Jan Frans Van der Straelen and Jan Baptist Van der Straelen,  Kronijk van Antwerpen, vol.4: 1791-1794, ed. by Rylant, Antwerpen: Voor God en Volk, pp.206-207

[5] “Dat het voors. Dood lichaem lag geheel ende onbeschadigt, ’t gene bovennatuurlijk was, in aenzien van de menigvuldige jaeren dat de voors. Margarita Van Dewyk overleden is.”Malines, Archives of the archdiocese of Malines (AAM), Acta Vicariatus (Acta), A.I.2.  Zalig- en heiligverlaringen, Eyewitness account, 16 June 1800: report on the whereabouts of the body during the French invasion. See also: Rijksarchief Antwerpen-Beveren, Archief kathedraal van Antwerpen, B. Gedenktekens en grafmonumenten, 6.B.11  Proces-verbaal van overbrenging van de kist van zuster Margariet van de Wijck naar bisschoppenkelder:  16 juni 1800; 1911-1928.

[6] “een dood lichaem van eene vrouwe, gekleet met religieuse kleederen der Theresiaenen “geheel en ongeschonden, ende van een coleur voor eene doode bovennatuurlyk” AAM, (Acta), A.I.2. Eye witness account, 16 June 1800.   

[7] “en men vertelde in Antwerpen dat hij zich de twee kostbare ringen had toegeeigend die aan den vinger van de doode staken” Prims, 1943, p.113, see also: Leuven, Kadoc, archief van de Zusters van het Heilig Hart van Jezus (Van Celst), Antwerpen/Westmalle, 190. Teksten betreffende zuster Maria Margareta Wake, “Notes sur Marie Marguerite des Anges, fournies par Mademoiselle S. Van Celst d’Anvers, 26 Avril 1875.” 

[8] Cited in Hardman, 1939, p.168. Floris Prims likewise mentions 1843 as the transfer date. He explicitly mentions that the body had decayed (whereas Jespers believed it to be found incorrupt). Prims, 1977, p.221. In 1843, the body of bishop Espinosa was discovered during the refurbishment of the Groenplaats and transferred to the bishops’ vault in the cathedral. Archbishop Sterckx on that occasion also visited the coffin of Margaret of the Angels and had some relics removed (parts from the neck and feet).  He gave them to F.J. De Gruytters, who had been the secretary of the last bishop of Antwerp, and was at that time the rector of the Van Celst institute. AAM, Acta, A.I.2, Marguerite des Anges, testimonies of J. Schaffer and cardinal Sterckx about 1843.

[9] “waer de venerable Magereta ab angelus Engelsche Carmelitesche 38 jaeren ingelegen had en onverderfelijk gebleven was.” Kadoc, Van Celst, Chronicle of the Van Celst institute, 1817-1855, p.4. The author would like to thank Hilde Daman for this reference.

[10]… je m’y suis placé du temps du bombardement de la ville, et j’ai été préservé des balles et des boulets hollandais qui transversaient ma maison.” Kadoc, Van Celst, Notes S. Van Celst, 1875.

[11] “crainte du gouvernement (…) et l’avons reçu processionnellement en priant les litanies de la Sainte Trinité.” Notes S. Van Celst, 1875. Kadoc, Archief van de Zusters van het HH van Jezus (Van Celst), Antwerpen/Westmalle.

[12] “die buyten in Vlaenderen is gaen woonen en ons dien schat in bewaernis heeft gegeeven.” Kadoc, Van Celst, Chronicle of the Van Celst institute, 1817-1855, p.4.

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